|Offseason Grades: Pacific Division|
The Pacific Division is home to the two-time defending champion, one perennial contender and three teams that didn't even crack 30 wins last season. For the Lakers, this was a cushy division to begin with, and that's before they improved with some subtle but significant tweaks over the summer. Their stiffest competition, the Suns, took a step backward with the loss of Amar'e Stoudemire. And their intra-city rivals, the Clippers, squandered a chance to make a free-agent splash. The Warriors got new ownership and the Kings a promising big man, but both of those clubs are still building, while the Lakers, again, look like a finished product.
|B||Golden State Warriors|
WHAT WENT RIGHT
The tenure of owner Chris Cohan, an unmitigated disaster in the East Bay, is over. Under Cohan, the Warriors racked up 15 lottery picks in 16 years, but Joe Lacob and Peter Guber were encouraged enough by the outlook to pay $450 million for the team. If nothing else, that price tag should encourage the Warriors' loyal fan base. The new owners obviously do not operate on the cheap.
Curry to Lee
Cohan at least left his successors with one parting gift: He acquired power forward David Lee (pictured) in a sign-and-trade with the Knicks, and even though Lee's offensive numbers were inflated in New York, he should be an ideal pick-and-roll partner for second-year point guard Stephen Curry. Lee may not be worth the $80 million the Warriors gave him, but he can attack the basket and has developed a reliable mid-range jumper.
WHAT WENT WRONG
The Warriors picked power forward Ekpe Udoh sixth overall, and less than a month later, announced that he injured his left wrist in a workout with Curry, will require surgery, and will be out at least until January. Besides center Dan Gadzuric, everyone on the Warriors' front line is either coming off an injury or still recovering from one.
The Lee trade gives the Warriors a proven power forward, but it takes away all the depth on their front line. They sent the Knicks power forward Anthony Randolph, small forward Kelenna Azubuike and center Ronny Turiaf, who combined for more than 30 points and 15 rebounds per game last season. The 21-year-old Randolph, who has shown promise, was a particularly tough loss.
When Lacob and Gruber bought the team, it seemed inevitable that Don Nelson would not be back as head coach. But with every passing day, it becomes more likely that Nelson will return for the final year of his contract and retire after the season. That would be fine if the Warriors were a veteran team with an eye on a championship, but they need a coach to grow with their young nucleus of Curry and Lee.
The effects of this summer will not be seen in the upcoming season, but in the seasons to follow. The Warriors have finally moved past the Cohan era, which means as much to their future as any free-agent signing.
|C||Los Angeles Clippers|
WHAT WENT RIGHT
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Blake Griffin, finally
After missing his entire rookie season, Griffin (pictured) has fully recovered from his fractured kneecap and is expected to be at full strength on opening night. If Griffin is as effective as advertised, the Clippers should contend for a playoff spot. With Griffin at power forward and All-Star Chris Kaman at center, the Clips will have one of the more credible front lines in the West.
The Clippers continue to buck their own tradition and make wise moves at the draft, plucking high-scoring small forward Al-Farouq Aminu from Wake Forest and then trading for Kentucky guard Eric Bledsoe, a potential lottery pick who sank all the way to No. 18. The Clippers will groom Bledsoe as a backup and successor to point guard Baron Davis.
Vinny Del Negro was not the most proven coach on the market, but he made a young team respectable in Chicago and will face the same challenge in Los Angeles. If Del Negro can do for the Clippers what he did for the Bulls, turning raw talent into playoff berths, he will be a success. The fact that he was a point guard, and can tutor Bledsoe the way he did Derrick Rose, does not hurt.
WHAT WENT WRONG
The Clippers cleared enough cap space for a maximum contract, entertaining thoughts of LeBron James or at least Rudy Gay. They came away with Ryan Gomes and Randy Foye. This summer was a missed opportunity for the Clippers, who had a chance to catapult themselves into the Western Conference race with an impact free agent, and instead stayed basically where they were.
Embarrassment in session
Six months after he resigned as head coach, and five months after he was fired as general manager, Mike Dunleavy was in court with the Clippers for an arbitration hearing, both sides accusing each other of fraud. Dunleavy claims that the Clippers owe him $7 million from the last year of his contract; the Clippers claim that Dunleavy never intended to fulfill the last year of the deal. Regardless, the case furthers perception that owner Donald Sterling runs a second-class franchise.
The Clippers made some admirable moves at the draft and will be much improved with Griffin on the floor. But they needed to sign a proven scorer in free agency. Even though they had the money and the space, they came up short again.
|A||Los Angeles Lakers|
WHAT WENT RIGHT
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Kobe Bryant wanted Phil Jackson to return as head coach, and after weeks of soul-searching, Jackson did. Bryant wanted Derek Fisher to return as point guard, and after weeks of negotiating, Fisher did. Jackson will make less than he did last year and Fisher will make less than he was offered by other teams, but neither could turn down Bryant.
After months of speculation that the Lakers would slash payroll, they added to it, finding several bargains to bolster their bench and keep their starters fresh for the playoffs. Steve Blake will split time with Fisher and provide much-needed three-point shooting; Matt Barnes (pictured) will spell Ron Artest and bring the same rugged defense; Theo Ratliff is another big body behind Andrew Bynum. The Lakers even managed to bring back Bryant's understudy, Shannon Brown, making their second unit better than last year's.
The Lakers opponent in the Western Conference finals, the Suns, lost Amar'e Stoudemire. The Lakers opponent in the Western Conference semifinals, the Jazz, lost Carlos Boozer. Despite the emergence of the Thunder, and the staying power of the Mavericks and Spurs, the Western Conference is not the gauntlet it used to be.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Heat is on
Though the Lakers remain the obvious choice to win the West, they are no longer the clear-cut favorite for the championship. Last season, they were more talented than any team they might have faced in the Finals, but that is not the case anymore. If the Lakers meet Miami for the title, they will have the advantage inside. Stopping the Heat's dribble penetration, however, will be problematic.
Bynum's knee, take three
For the third straight season, Bynum suffered a serious knee injury, and surprisingly he waited until the end of July to undergo arthroscopic surgery. The operation was successful and the Lakers insist that Bynum will be ready for training camp, but his knees rank as the biggest areas of concern for the Lakers. As everyone saw in the Finals, when Bynum plays, the Lakers are almost unbeatable. When he does not, they are vulnerable.
In an organization headlined by Bryant, Jackson and Jerry Buss, Mitch Kupchak does not get a lot of attention. But he showed this summer why he is one of the savviest general managers in the league, negotiating discounted deals for Blake and Barnes.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
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In an offseason that could have been a complete disaster, the Suns at least salvaged Hedo Turkoglu, who was as desperate for them as they were for him. After a miserable first year in Toronto, Turkoglu needed a fresh start, and the Suns are a blank canvas down low. Turkoglu is an untraditional power forward, now playing in an untraditional system. He likes to handle the ball, which should take some of the onus off Steve Nash, who will be counted on for more scoring.
The last time Josh Childress (pictured) was seen in the NBA, he was averaging 12 points and five rebounds for the Hawks. He spent the past two years playing for the Greek power Olympiacos, and now that he is back in the United States, no one knows for sure whether he will be better, worse or the same. Given how Brandon Jennings benefited from his time overseas, the Suns are wise to take the risk. If nothing else, Childress will be a tenacious perimeter defender and valued bench player.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Two years ago, Suns fans would have loved to see general manager Steve Kerr pack up and leave. But last season the team reached the Western Conference finals and Kerr was applauded. Only then did he resign, along with top lieutenant David Griffin, right before the draft and just as Stoudemire was entering free agency. The Suns eventually hired Lance Blanks as general manager and long-time agent Lon Babby as president of basketball operations, but by then crucial decisions had been made.
For seven years, Stoudemire was a stand-by for the Suns, one of the most effective finishers in the league and the ultimate pick-and-roll partner for Nash. With Stoudemire gone to New York, the Suns fall from the Western Conference elite and search of a new identity. The Suns have always been a perimeter-oriented team, but Stoudemire kept opposing defenses honest, and he leaves a 6-10, 250-pound void in the middle.
The Suns had a relatively flimsy front line even before Stoudemire left. Now, their roster is filled with small forwards -- and power forwards who play like small forwards. To match up with the Lakers, they will need young big men like Robin Lopez and Earl Clark to develop in a hurry. Lopez emerged in the Western Conference finals last season, but had to pull out of workouts with the USA Basketball team this summer because of his bad back.
Turkoglu, Childress and Hakim Warrick were all decent additions, but they in no way compensate for Stoudemire. Although the Suns surprised a lot of people last season, for them to contend again would be a much bigger shock.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
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The Kings picked fourth in the draft last June and came away with Tyreke Evans, the 2010 Rookie of the Year. They picked fifth this June and tabbed DeMarcus Cousins (pictured), a 6-foot-11, 292-pound center who might have the most potential of any rookie this year. No team is making better choices in the draft than the Kings, who also snagged Omri Casspi in the first round last year and turned him into a regular.
Building through the draft is not the quickest way to contention, but as Oklahoma City has shown, it can work. The Kings seem to be adopting the Thunder blueprint: parlaying hideous seasons into high picks and hoarding cap space until they are ready to add veterans. The Kings traded for pricey center Samuel Dalembert this summer, but they did not use much of their cap space, and if Evans and Cousins progress, they could be a free-agent destination down the road.
While some Western Conference powers are getting smaller -- particularly the Suns -- the Kings are assembling an impressive stable of big men. In addition to Cousins and Dalembert, they drafted Hassan Whiteside to go along with Jason Thompson. The Kings are still a year or two away, but they already have the size to make a ripple in the West.
WHAT WENT WRONG
The Kings still need a point guard to become a serious threat. Evans ran the point in college, but he is more comfortable on the wing. Beno Udrih did well for stretches last season, but he is ideally a backup. For the Kings to truly be the next Thunder, they have to find their version of Russell Westbrook.
Another summer passed without the Kings getting a deal for a new arena, crucial for their long-term viability. Owner George Maloof caused a stir when he met with former Sonics executive Wally Walker, prompting speculation that the Kings could move to Seattle. Maloof said he was only seeking advice about building an arena, as the Sonics tried to do before they bolted for Oklahoma City and became the Thunder.
Draft in the top five every year and you wind up with some talent. The Kings did not do a lot this offseason, but they now have two young players to build around in Cousins and Evans. At this time next year, they should be thinking playoffs.